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Chicago theatre refers not only to theatre performed in Chicago, Illinois but also to the movement in that town that saw a number of small, meagerly funded companies grow to institutions of national and international significance. Chicago had long been a popular destination for tours sent out from New York managements. The troupes that are commonly regarded as having started the postwar stage renaissance were The Second City and The Goodman Theatre.
Hull-House, the social settlement house of Chicago, had from the 1890s a theater program under Laura Dainty Pelham which performed the Chicago premiers of numerous of the new plays of Galsworthy, Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. In 1912 Maurice Browne founded the Little Theater in Chicago, crediting Pelham's Hull House influence. This, along with the founding of the Toy Theatre in Boston the same year, is credited with starting the American Little Theatre Movement.
The Second City, founded in 1959, is the country's premiere improvisational theatre, and its method of developing material has strongly influenced such playwrights as David Mamet (who was a dishwasher there), Jules Feiffer, Lanford Wilson, Jeffrey Sweet, James Sherman, David Auburn, Mark Hollmann, Greg Kotis and Alan Gross. The Second City also inspired the creation of other small troupes that grew, notably the Steppenwolf Theatre and the Victory Gardens Theater, both of which, along with the Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre Company, were honored with regional theatre Tony Awards, the only city in the country to have five theatres so honored.
The Goodman Theatre had existed for a number of years with a reputation as a home for revivals, but the arrival of artistic director Gregory Mosher changed its profile. He built the company's reputation largely on the discovery and early productions of the work of David Mamet, including American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. The Goodman Theatre also was where Hurlyburly by David Rabe premiered under the direction of Chicago improvisational theatre alum Mike Nichols.
After Mosher moved to New York, the artistic directorship went to Robert Falls, former director of the Wisdom Bridge Theatre. Falls is particularly known for his ongoing collaboration with actor Brian Dennehy, including productions of Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night that went to Broadway and won Tony Awards for both of them.
Briefly, The Goodman Theatre is known as the house of directors; Steppenwolf Theatre is known as the house of actors, Victory Gardens Theater as the house of writers; The Second City as the house of improvisation, and Lookingglass Theatre Company as the home of image-based productions. Several leading directors associated with these troupes -- Dennis Zacek, Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati -- are alumni of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. In addition, writers such as Newcity's senior editor Nate Lee helped encourage Chicagoans to come out and appreciate live theater.
Since 1990, Performink has been an industry newspaper for Chicago theatre, including show openings and reviews, audition listings, and industry and union news for Chicago actors, directors, dancers, designers, and other theatre professionals.
The Drury Lane Theatres were a group of six theatres in the Chicago suburbs founded by Tony DeSantis. He began producing plays in 1949 in a tent adjacent to his Martinique Restaurant to attract customers, then built his first theatre in 1958.
Chicago theatre is home to more than 200 small, critically acclaimed theatre companies such as Lifeline Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Redmoon Theater, Trap Door Theatre, and TUTA Theatre. Some have their own performance venues, while many perform in untraditional theatre spaces such as storefronts, public spaces like laundromats or bars, or any number of studio or black box theatres around Chicago.
Touring productions also visit the city regularly, mainly playing at the big theaters in the Chicago Theatre District in the Loop.
Following in the tradition of The Second City and Steppenwolf, many of these companies, including American Blues Theater, Stage Left Theatre, Organic Theater Company, and Lifeline Theatre, are ensemble-based. An ensemble-based company is formed of a group of artists (actors, directors, designers, playwrights, etc.) who work collaboratively to create each production.
Chicago theatre has a long record of introducing new plays and playwrights. Many of the theatres in Chicago have new play workshop programs to cultivate work from current playwrights. Chicago Dramatists, which was begun by a group of ex-students of a playwriting workshop at Victory Gardens Theater, has an ongoing program of developing new writers, most notably Rebecca Gilman.
The Victory Gardens Theater plays host to a dozen resident playwrights and most of the productions there are premieres of their plays, a number of which have gone on to productions elsewhere. Some of these include James Sherman's Beau Jest, Jeffrey Sweet's The Action Against Sol Schumann, Kristine Thatcher's Voice of Good Hope, Charles Smith's Jelly Belly, Steve Carter's Pecong, Claudia Allen's Deed of Trust, and Douglas Post's Earth and Sky.
Stage Left Theatre's Downstage Left program has cultivated nationally known playwrights Mia McCullough, David Rush, Margaret Lewis and David Alan Moore.
Chicago dell'Arte is local company currently creating and producing new works of Commedia dell'arte. The Company also sponsors and in-house troupe known as Le Corone Rosse.
Chicago is home to both non-union and union theatre companies. Union shows adhere to strict contracts for all artists involved (e.g., performers, directors, musicians, playwrights, stage managers, et cetera). Artistic trade unions such as Actors' Equity, commonly known simply as "Equity," and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society bargain for contracts guaranteeing minimum wages and other rights involved with the rehearsal and production process. Chicago theatre shows may run for a varying number of weeks, depending on ticket sales. Musicals tend to have longer runs than do stage plays. The majority of Chicago theatres are located on the city's North Side and downtown, in the Loop.
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